The Secular Problem

Increased chatter about religion and its role in our state and our civil society has bubbled up to the surface over recent days.

In part this has been precipitated by the defeat of a key plank of the government’s Welfare Reform Bill in the House of Lords, in the form of an amendment tabled by the Rt Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, which effectively prevented the proposed cap on benefits payments being applied to any household with children in it. If you’re quick, you can hear an informative 30 minute Radio 4 programme discussing the Bishops in the House of Lords on iPlayer.

In another part, this is about last week’s High Court victory for the National Secular Society. The court ruled that under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, it is unlawful for Bideford Town Council to hold prayers at the opening of their council meetings.

Secular Liberals will also be buoyed by last week’s news that the Cornwall B&B owners, who denied a gay couple the use of a double room, lost their appeal against the 2011 ruling that they were in breach of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.

Chair of the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi, has used the occasion of an official visit that she is leading to The Vatican, to write an Op-Ed piece for the Telegraph, in which she warns against the dangers of intolerant ‘militant secularism’ and the implicit marginalisation and oppression of faith.

As you may expect, Twitter is awash with the usual guff and nonsense. I was involved in a discussion with some chaps on there, and had to abandon it. As much as it is suited to adversarial rhetoric and soundbites, the format is really not conducive to nuanced argument. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the intolerant militant secularists that Warsi refers to, you need look no further than twitter to see that they are no chimera.

I understand the points of view I was faced with: Religion is irrational, it is a panoply of untruths, contradictions and calls to action that are not really appropriate in our 21st century British society. Religion is the cause of, excuse or catalyst for war, oppression, discrimination, bigotry and abuse.

I understand these points of view because I acknowledge and, to an extent, agree with them.

I could go back 10 years to forum posts I made on the internet back then, which argued the same points in the same way I’m seeing now. I’ve been there in that mind set, thoroughly hostile to religion and its institutions, heady on a cocktail of pity and loathing for the sheep who believed.

I was brought up in a non-religious household. I was not baptised or Christened or inducted into any religious group. Both my parents are from (different) Christian denominations, but to say they are lapsed would be a bigger understatement than when Liam Byrne wrote ‘There’s no money left’.

I have been in churches four times in my life, twice of which for funerals, once for a wedding. I have been to a Sikh wedding and a Hindu wedding.

Religion is not in my blood, or in the make up of my psyche, so it has taken me a long time to understand what I now know.

I do think that Warsi has a point. However, I think it’s unhelpful that it is Warsi who has given voice to this concern, as she’s no heavyweight in the intellectual sense, and many people find her deeply irritating – I’m one of them. But she does have a point.

If Warsi weighing in on the debate is unhelpful, then David Cameron coming along and adding his tuppence is about as welcome as a Scotsman at a fundraising dinner. Here is a man who is hated by the right for his woolly environmentalism, his embrace of the NHS, his enthusiasm for foreign aid, his euro-capitulation and his refusal to make Osborne cut our taxes in the name of growth. Of course he’s hated by the left. He’s a Tory, and he’s leading a government. That’s all that is required.

The current anti-religious climate, if that’s what it is, seems to be the result of a number of strands of thought – some of which oppose one another.

Established Left

The establishment left, many of them old Marxists, still hold a torch for communist USSR, knowing in their hearts that ‘this time we can get Marxism right’. It’s a matter of record that Russia oppressed all forms of religious expression for decades, and endeavoured to stamp out faith altogether. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that large parts of the left  are hostile to religion. The Labour youth draw on this reservoir of secular hostility.

Liberal Left

The left of the New Labour years took masses of ground in the battle to subordinate religious beliefs to those of enforced ‘political correctness’ and Newspeak ‘equality’  (see the B&B case above for one example). And if Diane Abbott wants an example of ‘divide and conquer’, she need look no further than the conundrum of the hierarchy of rights when Muslims are pitted against gays or women in law, as compared to Christians – MC Escher would have been proud. If the word pernicious didn’t exist, we’d have had to invent it to describe Labour’s Equalities Act.

New Labour is also plausibly alleged to have operated an unofficial open-borders policy, in the ideological name of multiculturalism (there’s that divide and rule again). Welcoming those of all faiths and none (as well as those with all skills and none), not only altered the ethnic mix, but also the religious mix, weakening the Christian foundations of British society and, in turn, the law.

Aggressive Atheists

Then there are the aggressive atheists who have taken up fountain pens against religion, notably Professor Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and Christopher Hitchens, who is enjoying the resurgence of the recently dead, and has probably sold more copies of “God is not Great’ since his demise than before it.

Skeptics (sic)

The aggressive atheists, and their brethren, are closely allied to the Skeptics movement. The Skeptics are the secular righteous. They apply the rational method to all the things they have no faith in, thus excluding such inconvenient matters as their almost universal faith in the existence of man-made climate change and other such leftist shibboleths.

The ‘skeptics‘ are right about some things – the only movements that get off the ground without a scintilla of truth are political ones – but their manner and methods are off-putting and ultimately, engaging them in debate is fruitless because most of them are unwilling to reconsider any view point they hold through either their own deductions or those of Skeptic high priests such as Ben Goldacre and David Allen Green.

Incidentally, the UKSkeptics website has this to say on why they insist on using the American spelling of ‘sceptic’: [my emphasis]

The issue is not an important one as both spellings of the word mean exactly the same thing. Some people, however, do try to make a distinction between the two spellings as if they have different meanings: they do not.

The biggest confusion that occurs is where people look up sceptic/skeptic in the dictionary and get the definition of the noun: One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.

To be "a Skeptic" means that the person adheres to the method of scientific skepticism. This is different to being "sceptical" which means to be doubtful.

… so I’m not sure we can absolutely count on the skeptics for coherent arguments.

The Skeptic with a K’ers also have some celebrity backing from the likes of Brian Cox (who loves nothing more than talking to us all like we’re 6 years old), Tim Minchin (whose meteoric rise to Skeptic deity seems to be a function of his ostentatious leftishness and vicious hatred of Catholicism), and Stephen Fry (whose legion of twitter followers treat any dissent from the Word of Fry in a way that would make the Spanish Inquisitors recant).

All in all, then, I think we can say that there is a distinctly anti-religious mood in the air.

So why should we cut religion any slack? After all, the Abrahamic religions all hold some established antipathy towards gays, women, non-believers, heretics etc.

Well, there are a number of good, pragmatic reasons. Just for starters:

  • Religious people and organisations do good and charitable works for people and society. From the giving of alms to the establishment of educational facilities, running youth groups, tending the sick and raising money for all other manner of honourable aims.
  • Religious individuals derive great comfort from their faith when life deals them a bad hand. When people are in dire emotional straits, be it through bereavement, illness, failed relationship or whatever, is it really such a bad thing if they take solace and strength from closing their eyes and asking their imaginary friend for spiritual support?
  • Religion is part of what keeps communities and societies together, being their brothers’ keeper. A common identity, a common set of values and a common interest in each other’s welfare.
  • Religious teachings provide allegories and metaphors, which have been a historically vital means of communicating morality and forming character, enabling cohesive societies.

Admittedly, not all of the above are true for all religions, but by and large, I’d call that a good start.

What about the bad stuff the is done in the name of religion? Well, every trespass that has been committed in the name of religion or by the religious, has also been committed in the name of some other ‘greater good’ or by some non-religious person or group. Imperialism, theft, torture, terrorism, war, paedophilia, corruption, coercion, rape and murder. Find me one that hasn’t ever been committed without the encouragement of a god?

If not religion, then what?

Social psychology has plenty to say about the human tendency towards group behaviour. There is comfort and safety in being around people with whom one shares common aims and interests, expressed in common terms. An important adjunct to this is Tajfel’s social identity theory. In a nutshell:

    Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).

    Tajfel proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.

    In order to increase our self-image we enhance the status of the group to which we belong. For example, England is the best country in the world! We can also increase our self-image by discriminating and being prejudice against the out group (the group we don’t belong to). For example, the Americans, French etc. are a bunch of losers!

    Therefore we divided the world into “them” and “us” based through a process of social categorisation (i.e. we put people into social groups).

    This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them). Social identity theory states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image.

    So, in a sense, religion as we know it today has simply been the most successful set of groups to which the masses have cleaved.

    Here are some others:

  • Football teams & supporters’ clubs
  • Political parties
  • Fashionable & radical cultural movements (skins, punks, mods, grebos etc)
  • Environmental groups
  • Animal rights groups
  • Trade unions
  • Regional dialects & minority languages

There is obvious potential for rivalry between the different groups and factions in all of the above categories. Individuals may take a more or less orthodox and immovable view in any case. e.g. A football fan may be an armchair supporter who takes his kid to a game twice a season, or he may have an Arsenal tattoo on his face and go around looking for Spurs fans to dissect with his Stella glass. I wouldn’t propose generally banning or curtailing peoples’ right to support a football team, nor ostracising those who do indulge. Any potential violence whatever is a separate matter related to the knuckle-drag co-efficient of the individual.

The same applies with degrees of religious orthodoxy that different folk subscribe to in any area. As far as I’m concerned, a rabid Chelsea fan can get as far away from me as a radical Islamist. Just another flag/badge/identity under which to perpetrate ones own particular violence and mindless bigotry.

But religion is not just about social psychology. It is also about power and control, the vital lubricant of which is money. Religious authorities hand down edicts from on high and take tithes to build their grand cathedrals. Sound at all familiar? Sound anything like the state?

In the sphere of power and control, there is a natural tension between the church and the state, as they compete for our loyalty, our money and our submission. This manifested itself as above in the recent House of Lords defeat suffered by the government.

If we take that tension away, what are we left with? The unrestrained state. Who wants that? Well, Stalin certainly wanted it, and there’s no shortage of religious oppression in China either.

But why would anyone on the British political left want it either? If the bishops had been kicked out of the House of Lords, for being an affront to modern secular blah, who would have kicked Iain Duncan Smith square in the goolies last week? Who is bound to step up to the plate and take an interest in the welfare of the poor when the Tories are bent on cutting state aid to the bone?

As for morality, read the 10 commandments. Who do we want to learn 10 commandments from? The Archbishop of York, or David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg?

Yes, then, religion is far from perfect. There’s a very simple reason for that: It is made of fallible human beings. Nevertheless, a significant amount of benefit accrues to individuals and to society through religion.

What I don’t like about religion is the tendency towards intolerance and suppression of dissenting views. Which is, coincidentally, exactly what I don’t like about militant secularists.

Live and let live.


4 thoughts on “The Secular Problem

  1. Skeptics aren’t, by and large, sceptical. They’re logical positivists. Even when I was studying philosophy ages ago, it was a totally discredited philosophical position, so it’s somewhat surprising to see it still has its advocates in the real world.

  2. Bloody hell AJ, I’ve got you in “dead/dormant” but you blog more often than i do!

    like you, i used to be very anti-religion but am now far more mellow towards it, even seeing the advantages. That said however, i don’t think it has any place in government, local or otherwise. I think you hit the nail on the head with:

    If we take that tension away, what are we left with? The unrestrained state. Who wants that? Well, Stalin certainly wanted it, and there’s no shortage of religious oppression in China either.”

    Religion is at it’s best as a counterfoil to the state, even monotheistic fundamentalist ones (maybe especially those ones) pulling people away from the Duce de Jure and towards something else. In an ideal world there would be no state and no religion either, but here in reality both is better than one.

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